National Geographic : 2005 Mar
The man seems a trifle angry, doesn't he? Though we have no clue what triggered his reaction (he is in fact an actor), the emotion is written all over his face. Most of us will have no trouble reading it, no matter where we come from. Forty years ago, psychologist Paul Ekman of the University of California, San Francisco, showed photographs of Americans express ing various emotions to the isolated Fore people in New Guinea. Though most of the Fore had never been exposed to Western faces, they readily recognized expressions of anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, and fear and surprise (which are difficult to differenti ate). When Ekman conducted the experiment in reverse, showing Fore faces to Westerners, the emotions were again unmistakable. Ekman's now classic study gave powerful support to the notion that the facial expres sions of basic emotions are universal, an idea first put forth by Charles Darwin. According to Ekman, these six emotions (plus contempt) are themselves universal, evolved to prepare us to deal quickly with circumstances we believe will affect our wel fare. Some emotional triggers are universal as well. A sudden invasion of your field of vision triggers fear, for instance. But most emotional triggers are learned. The smell of newly mowed hay will conjure up different emotions in someone who spent idyllic child hood summers in the country and someone who was forced to work long hours on a farm. Once such an emotional association is made, it is difficult, if not impossible, to unmake it. "Emotion is the least plastic part of the brain," says Ekman. But we can learn to man age our emotions better. For instance, the shorter the time between the onset of an emo tion and when we become consciously aware of it-what Ekman calls the refractory period the more likely we are to double-check to see if the emotion is appropriate to the situation. One way to shorten the refractory period is to be aware of what triggers our various emotions. MORE ON YOUR MIND Take 15 minutes to participate ina global survey to help scientists learn more about how we communicate with facial expressions. Find links to research studies reported inthe story, and watch a video of photogra pher Cary Wolinsky to see how he posed a baby for a portrait with a python at nationalgeographic.com/magazine/0503.